Sharon Sikes runs her nonprofit organization like a business.
At Angel Layettes, it’s all about efficiency and fiduciary responsibility.
Mrs. Sikes uses her background in business and bereavement to run the ministry, which produces burial layettes for infants who have died before, during or shortly after birth. For Mrs. Sikes, it is a labor of love and she expects nothing in return.
Mrs. Sikes, who is in her early 70s, was born in Big Spring but grew up in Arizona. She moved back to Texas to go to Hardin-Simmons University for a year before dropping out so her husband could go to college.
She worked as a secretary for a college and a bank before helping run their oil and gas business. She went on to become a certified bereavement counselor and did support groups at Hospice of East Texas.
She believes God led her to bereavement.
“It’s God’s calling on my heart,” she added.
COAST TO COAST
Mrs. Sikes, who serves as president of the board of directors, said Angel Layettes is a unique ministry.
“Most charities provide a service; we provide a product,” she said.
When she started making the layettes out of her home with a few friends for Mother Frances Hospital in 2004, she never dreamed it would grow to servicing 50 hospitals from coast to coast.
In 2009, she moved the operation to a house outside of Flint that they converted into a type of factory and recently converted the two-car garage into offices. For the past two years, they have made about 2,500 layettes a year.
“We found lots of hospitals needed this,” she said. “As far as we know, we’re the first charitable sewing center in America.”
Sometimes she looks out of the window of the small house and tells the volunteers that one day there will be a high-rise on the 3-acre property to manufacture the layettes while the house serves as offices. They laugh at her.
“You have to have a vision, or you’ll never know where you’re going,” she said.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Sikes shipped an order of 80 layettes to a hospital in Pennsylvania.
The sets come with a gown, hat and blanket for the baby to be buried in and a keepsake heart for the parents. They try to make every set unique and sizes run from 1-pound babies to full-term infants.
The keepsake hearts are dissected just like the broken hearts of the parents. They make keepsake hearts and tiny baby shrouds for mothers who have had a miscarriage. They also make memory pouches for their baby’s mementoes.
“Some people say, ‘That’s so sad, how can you do that?’” Mrs. Sikes said, but she believes the saddest thing is if a baby dies and there is nothing to bury them in.
“It is sad that these babies die, but it’s not sad that we make them,” she said.
The organization runs like a well-oiled machine.
Fabric, patterns, templates and layette sets are carefully stored in every nook and cranny of the building and sewing machines await volunteers who donate their time sewing the tiny outfits and mementoes.
Everything is manufactured, stored and shipped from the property. With so many layettes in inventory, once an order is placed, it takes them a day or two to ship it. She also ships layettes overnight to people who are not in a hospital that provides them.
“Through the years, we have automated a lot of what we do,” Mrs. Sikes said.
What once took about three hours to cut by hand and sew now can be done in about an hour with patterns, die casts and other tools that provide accuracy and efficiency.
Mrs. Sikes has about 15 volunteers and hopes to recruit and train more this fall. She wants to start giving sewing classes for those who don’t know how to sew but want to help “so we can grow what I call the next movement of volunteers,” she said.
Her volunteers are all women, although she could use men to help with the heavy die casts, and they have ranged in age from a teenager to a 90-year-old. Not all volunteers need to know how to sew; they have other tasks that need to be done.
“They really have a heart for the ministry,” Mrs. Sikes said of the volunteers. “We’re blessed we’ve had these heartfelt women that could do this.”
Mrs. Sikes loves to sew but hardly has time for it now that she spends most of her time running the charity.
Her husband of 52 years is semi-retired and helps out with the charity, making sure repairs are made, getting shipments out and generally “helps in every way,” she said.
Angel Layettes runs off charitable donations and grant funds, and Mrs. Sikes takes that very seriously. No scrap of fabric is wasted.
“We don’t waste anything,” she said. “All of us take a lot of pride in that.”
She has backup equipment, electricity hookups to handle all the machines and a generator so production never goes down.
Mrs. Sikes spends a lot of time organizing everything so when volunteers come in, they can go to work. Volunteers work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She wants to add Saturdays for working women and plans to have a new group work on Mondays.
“If this business is going to grow and provide what we say we will — and that’s providing to every hospital that needs our service — we need to follow every growth avenue we can,” she said.
She hopes to hire a manager to help make that happen.
“It’s a big job,” she said.
Mrs. Sikes said they have added hospitals at a rate where they couldn’t handle keeping up with the orders. But somehow they managed, and since adding the more efficient equipment, she feels they can take on just about anything.
“We felt that God would lead us and guide us as He wanted us to grow,” she said.
When asked why she started Angel Layettes and why she keeps doing it, she replied, “There’s a need that’s not being met — that’s it.”